I had just turned 40 and was harnessed to the parapet of the Sydney harbour bridge when I first encountered banal, casual, wounding racism first hand. Our guide on the bridge excursion (a birthday treat from a good friend who knew how much I loved the harbour area of that great city) was a white Australian who seemed pleasant enough, innocuous even, at the start: then the Irish “jokes” started. Something like “Who here is Irish?” Three hands go up (me and a young honeymoon couple). “I suppose you had a few drinks this morning to work up your courage for this climb!” Stony silence from the tethered three; and a few weak smiles and bemused looks from others in the group. Then a string of offensive, stupid mindless so-called jokes about the drunken Irishman who worked on the construction of the bridge, fell into the harbour and was so sozzled that he survived and went straight to the pub; the stupid Irish engineer who couldn’t understand how steel would stay up; the lazy Irish workers who delayed the construction of the bridge and then claimed overtime; and so on.
I saw red. I saw green. I felt incandescent, and felt my blood pressure climb as we ascended. But I was looped to a system and besides interjecting to say that some of us didn't find his jokes amusing, in fact we found them offensive, I could do little to tackle this most unfunny of jokers. I made a written complaint on arrival back on terra firma, but was leaving Australia a few weeks later and never heard another word; the company running the bridge tours may have seen me as another whinging Paddy, cousin to the stereotypical whinging Pom of Australian life.
That particular experience of racial stereotyping, insult and belittlement came back to me as I read the recent reports of the taunting of Adam Goodes, Australian rules football's most prominent indigenous player. Goodes is a brilliant sportsman and has become a strong symbol of Aboriginal political consciousness through his stance in standing up to racists and bigots in sport and in life. His anger and its eloquent, symbolic expression (miming the throwing of a spear and raising a war cry at a baying section of the opposition crowd after he scored a goal for the Sydney Swans against Melbourne's Carlton earlier this year) has earned him the admiration of some and the opprobrium of many in sport and public life. His political awareness is built on what he termed the experience of "being the object of racism so many times that you lose count"; and as the 2014 Australian of the Year he declared that John Pilger's documentary film Utopia, which addresses the many challenges facing his people, made him "ashamed to be Australian".
In my experience the two key cultures to understanding Australia and its people are Aboriginal and Irish; the often intertwined history of both these people within the British colony helped shape much of the best and the worst of Australian life and identity. Many Irish were involved in some of the most infamous massacres of indigenous people; others married Aboriginal men and women, and some of the best-known and eloquent campaigners for Aboriginal rights and justice are descendants of this intercultural mix: retired magistrate Pat O'Shane and poet Kevin Gilbert among others. The hostility towards Aboriginal and Irish people in Australia is often thinly disguised, and the particular Australian form of redneck ignorance with regard to the history and contemporary reality of both groups transcends class and place but has its roots in a particular and insidious sense of distorted and deeply snobbish Anglocentric superiority.
I encountered that edge of prejudice more than once in my time in Australia: on one occasion I was sharing a drink and a bowl of chips with an (Irish) friend in a fairly posh bar near the Australian Broadcasting Corporation building and a passing executive took one look at us and sneered "Ah, the Irish, still eating potatoes." That jibe is a tiny detail when it comes to the history and experience of indigenous Australians, but echoes the mindset that once declared Australia to be terra nullius, an empty land, denying the very existence, never mind the inherent rights, of the native people of that vast country.
Aboriginal, Irish, and Irish-Australian poets and writers have addressed some of the complex (and often shockingly simple) history of settlement, exploitation, massacre, repression and prejudice that marks the modern-day tension between different groups in Australia. Kevin Gilbert, Jennifer Avriel Martiniello, Roland Robinson, Colleen Burke and Louis de Paor have written memorable poems that cut through to the heart of the reality which spurs Adam Goodes into speech and action. He has been called an "ape" from the stands, and like his fellow sportsman Nicky Winmar, he has stood up to the bigots and asserted his pride in his colour and identity. We are inextricably linked to the life of modern Australia, and the tyranny of distance shouldn't deafen us to the racist calls from the sports stands of Sydney, or the rightful pride and anger of Adam Goodes.
Vincent Woods co-edited The Turning Wave, Poems and Songs of Irish Australia, and made several radio programmes on Irish poetry for the ABC, Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Email firstname.lastname@example.org